A final decision is weeks away, but planners are making a strong case for commuter rail service to anchor plans for the beginning of an upgraded metrowide transit system, the first two lines of which would run in Eastern Jackson County.

A final decision is weeks away, but planners are making a strong case for commuter rail service to anchor plans for the beginning of an upgraded metrowide transit system, the first two lines of which would run in Eastern Jackson County.


Those plans come with costs – rail systems cost more to build and run than buses – but officials say they attract far more riders, drive up property values near stops and lead to significant private investment.


The MetroLink line in St. Louis, for example, has brought $3 billion in private investment, said Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, who has for several years championed a transit system that he says would transform Kansas City in much the same way the interstate highway system transformed the United States 60 years ago.


“Think about what that would mean for our area – $3 (billion) to $4 billion in new investment,” Sanders said Tuesday at an open house at which officials outlined current plans and took public comments.


Kansas City Council Member Scott Wagner said companies are already looking at investments in Kansas City because of this transit plan and Kansas City’s companion plan for streetcars from the River Market to Union Station.


“The need for this is very real,” Wagner said.


Sanders said this is about competing not just with cities in the Midwest but cities around the world – cities that have adopted rail-based systems.


“Those that don’t (invest in transit) continue to fall behind and lose market share,” Sanders said.


Here’s some of the math that planners are reviewing. Consider two options for commuters in Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley:


• Use the Kansas City Southern line that rolls through those cities, connecting Oak Grove with the River Market. It would cost $480 million to $600 million to build and $10.7 million a year to run. But with one stop each in Oak Grove, Grain Valley and Blue Springs and three in Independence – near the Centerpoint Medical Center, near Noland Road north of Truman High School and on Sterling Avenue just north of 23rd Street – it would attract 728,000 annual riders and lead to an estimated $536.3 million in economic development.


• Use express buses on Interstate 70 – again, just half a dozen stops – a system that can be built for $35 million to $39 million and run for just $3.6 million a year. The drawback is that it adds few new riders – just 156,000 a year – and its economic development impact is “minimal,” according to planners.


Planners have other ways to measure the pros and cons, including ratings of “best,” “good” and “comparatively poor” on each of eight criteria. Project manager Shawn Dikes on Tuesday likened it to a comparison in Consumer Reports.


Both approaches – trains and buses – get a “best” from planners for providing the capacity needed in the years ahead to get people around town, and both get a “good” for linking into hiking/biking trails and therefore promoting healthier community. After that, trains come out ahead by every measure, including reducing air pollution, promoting desired land use, and getting people to and from “activity centers” such as the Independence Center area. Commuter rail also comes out ahead in travel times – downtown Blue Springs to downtown Kansas City in 51 minutes, compared with 57 minutes by bus – and the ability to consistently arrive on time.


Officials also are looking at a second corridor, probably using the old Rock Island tracks that come from Pleasant Hill up through Lee’s Summit and Raytown into Kansas City. Four options are still on the table: two with buses, one with commuter rail and one using “enhanced streetcars,” which is something akin to light rail. Again, the diesel-powered commuter rail option, using standard freight tracks, comes out ahead based on the eight criteria.


There is, of course, another math problem – paying to build it and paying to run it. Officials hope the federal government will pick up 30 to 50 percent of the costs to build a system. Other funds could come from either a sales tax or a property tax. Officials have described a sales tax as the most likely approach, saying polls show support for the idea. A one-cent tax, a possibility for the November ballot, brings in about $80 million a year.


Tax money could go for both building and running the system, as fares typically cover only about 20 percent of operating costs.


Sanders says he likes the area’s chances of winning federal money. He has long touted the advantage of using existing tracks, making this area’s plans far cheaper than those in other cities building systems from scratch. Early next year, he says, Congress is likely to pass a major transportation bill, possibly with the last large pot of rail transit money available for many years. He also points out that for nearly 30 years, 20 percent of federal gas tax money – a little more than 2 cents a gallon – has gone directly for such plans, money Kansas City has never tapped into.


“Those dollars are going to go somewhere in 2013. ... I think it just makes sense to bring some of those dollars back to Kansas City,” Sanders said at Tuesday’s open house.


To get in line for that money, officials plan to have final preferred options – both the route and the mode of transport – for the two lines figured out in about a month. (Then there will be another round of open houses for public comment.) Sanders and other officials stress that they need to get the cities involved and on board with those plans, though the final paperwork that goes to Washington will be approved, possibly in June, by the Mid-America Regional Council board.


“So we have some critical questions before us in the next few weeks,” Tom Gerend, MARC’s assistant transportation director, told that board on Tuesday.